Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Art of Selfish Obfuscation

I came across this article in the conservative periodical, the Weekly Standard. The article makes the argument that while the inalienable rights as defined in the Constitution as the freedom to worship, free speech, presumption of innocence until proof of guilt and so on are natural and does not require human intervention to create them. On the other hand rights which are pushed by the political Left, such as the right to a job, right to income, right to the best available healthcare, etc are paid for by human blood, sweat and tears, and therefore need to be compensated. The article lauds the Left for having the best intentions, but portrays them as being naive in imagining that any of these provisions could or should be provided free by some of us who pay taxes. It goes on to explore the failings of many welfare states.

I emailed the author with the following note:

This is a good argument. I'm a centrist and hold no political ideology to be above moral absolutes. I have a gripe about this though.

Although the Left packages many goods as rights I don't believe they think these are inalienable rights. Rather, they think these are collective responsibilities. The Jeffersonian ideal of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness may not have been inherently selfish, because it was drafted by people who wanted these things for their countrymen and not simply for themselves; but it has been understood in a narrow sense of "what is in this for me" by contemporary Americans. We only think of rights as being sacrosanct, and not of responsibilities. Or, some responsibilities. Our successive governments have not hesitated to rush arms and soldiers to foreign countries when there was no threat to the US from those countries- all at the cost of the taxpayers. We regard this as a responsibility. Somehow we do not think of taking care of the elderly and the sick among us as being a collective responsibility. There are other things you mentioned which do not merit such collective pooling of resources. But atrophy, disease, old age and intensive care are among the kindnesses a humane society cannot do without. The pursuit of happiness precisely this- to build such a community of responsible people. Without this we would simply become greedy and selfish, all the while justifying it with ideology and the oft-repeated excuse that there is no free lunch. There isn't, of course, but no responsibility is painless; and a society that cannot bear any pain to do something good is a society that is in decline.
I wonder if the distinction between the Left and the Right is not so much naivete or unkindness on either part as the article seems to imply, but a wrong understanding of our responsibilities and others' rights. Fighting someone else's war even on serious grounds presents moral dilemmas that noone should think of war as being a good choice under any extenuating circumstances. It is wrong, period. As wrong as it is to justify the Holocaust because as a result the Jewish people got a homeland or to justify the horrors of the British Raj because Indians received the benefits of the English language, law and a democratic government. These are excuses to justify our prejudices or selfish interests. I'm not saying that we should never fight wars- simply that even when we have no choice in the matter, we are doing something wrong. And our soldiers whom we pray for are killing people daily, which is wrong. It takes a toll on them for good reason. If it didn't we should be afraid, that somehow we have become numb to the guilt in our consciences that was intended by God to turn to Him.

To withhold care from the aged or infirm because of the financial strain on taxpayers would be irresponsible and simply adding to the me-first mentality that we have come to prize in our super-private society.

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